Monday, March 25, 2013

The Concert Series - Part VIII: Sigur Ros

If one were to ever ask me what the first concert I ever went to was, I’d have to say it was a Phil Collins show sometime during the summer of 1990.  However, if you were to allow me to count a show I was at in utero, then my answer would change to Jackson Browne in early September, 1977.  Now doctors may say that a fetus in the womb cannot hear until about 18 weeks into pregnancy meaning I most likely did not hear anything during this show since I was about two months away from being developed enough to detect any sort of sound waves that may have made their way to my premature ears.  I still think it’s kinda cool to say that was my first show, but in all actuality, there was probably no part of my being that could detect anything that was going on that night.  I highly doubt that was the case for the baby-in-waiting that my friends Taylor and Clark are expecting in the next few weeks during last night’s blisteringly beautiful live performance put on by Iceland’s own Sigur Ros.  And lucky for her, she was treated to a phenomenal show.

I have known of Sigur Ros for about 13 years now and have been a fan since the get go.  I was first introduced to them by my friend Pat sometime around my senior year of college.  Most of the band’s songs are sung in either their native Icelandic language or a made up language called “Hopelandic” which supposedly is a combination of Icelandic and English.  However you want to look at it, their lyrics and song titles are pretty much indecipherable and singing along with the band is near impossible.  You basically just have to focus on making the same vowel sounds as lead singer, Jonsi does and you may come up with something similar. 

Along with the unfamiliar languages they sing in, what sets them apart from most other bands includes the hauntingly crisp, beautiful, and flawless falsetto in which Jonsi sings and the consistent use of a bow he uses on his electric guitar that produces either a delicate and sustained background noise or a boisterous and all-encompassing wall of sound that feels like it’s going to bring the walls of your house down if he doesn’t let up on it.  In today’s wide range of bands, musicians, and artists, I’ve still yet to hear anyone who sounds like these guys.  They’re one of the most unique acts I’ve ever heard.

The band does not tour a whole lot and when they do they only hit select cities throughout the world.  As a result, I had only seen them once before and that was only because they played Bonnaroo in 2008.  So when I saw they were coming to the D.C. area, I was all about getting tickets.  I asked around and not many people were interested in joining me, though when I broached the subject with Taylor Clark, they pretty much bought in right away.  But Taylor was (and still is) pregnant and her due date was just a few weeks after the show was to go down.  I have no idea what it’s like to be pregnant, but I’ve been told it can be quite the taxing undertaking and can wreak havoc on one’s body and emotional state.  So I was a little concerned for Taylor and wondered if she would be in the right state (physically and emotionally) to go to such a concert.  Much to all of our delight, she is doing just fine and was just as or even more excited than Clark or I was to see them.

We arrived at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Virginia around 7:45 and as we entered the arena, we could hear some ambient sounds coming from the stage.  Our initial thought was that the band had already started, but by the time we got to our seats it was clear they were not out there.  However, the arena was dark and there was blue lighting on the stage along with a large white/opaque sheet that hung over the front of the stage.  There was also some sort of music coming from the stage.  Honestly, I did not think it was an opening act until the music stopped and the lights came up.  I later looked it up and found out it was a musician by the name of Tim Hecker.  There was not much melody in his music and seemed to be just long sustaining notes played by some sort of synthesizer.  It sounded fine and all, but maybe I would have paid more attention had I realized it was an actual opening act and not just a roadie doing a sound check like I thought.

The band finally came out around 8:30 and that big opaque sheet was still hanging in front of them.  There were a number of lights projecting from behind them that were cast on the sheet which made for a very aesthetically pleasing stage the first song and a half.  They opened with a new song which concluded with Jonsi powerfully bowing away at his guitar to create an overwhelming sound.  What made it even cooler was that they cast a bright light behind him which was angled at such that the shadow it cast on the sheet was about twenty feet tall.  It looked like a gigantic monster going ape shit on a guitar and was all kinds of bad ass.  Their second song, “Ny batteri” which is one of my favorites from their first album, is a perfect example of what they do so well.  It’s a song that starts off very minimally and softly that eventually rises to a cacophonous and raucous full band entrance.  When it finally kicked in fortissimo, the sheet dropped and there was now nothing that separated the band from the audience.  It was great.

The show lasted around and hour and 45 minutes and they did a great job of mixing their material up.  They played mostly songs from their first three albums (which I really enjoyed because those are my favorites) and their new upcoming album to be released in June which also sounded great.  They also did an excellent job of mixing up their sound going from one soft, melodic, and beautiful song to another that built up to a full crescendo and rocked the place out.  The band not only consists of the three main members, but with a number of other multi-instrumentalists and what amounts to nothing short of a small orchestra behind them complete with string, brass, and woodwind sections.  If there ever was a true meeting of classical music and rock music, you’d be hard pressed to find a better representation.

I was also amazed at how quite and attentive the crowd was.  There are a number of times throughout their songs where the music is softer and slowed down and it would totally ruin it if you had people talking or making noise around you.  That was hardly ever the case and the crowd was quite amenable to giving their full attention at all times, even when the music was so soft it was nearly impossible to hear.  Midway through the show between songs and after the applause died down, some dude yelled out “THAT WAS GREAT!!!” and it was literally the only thing anyone heard in that moment.  Though the dude was seeking some cheap and easy attention, he was not wrong at all, and it garnered a chuckle throughout the crowd.

Though our seats were towards the back and it was hard to see the band close up, it was great to see the drummer positioned where he was; up front and to the right of the stage.  He was facing the left side of the stage so we were able to see his drumming clearly from his profile which was great because he would go absolutely crazy on those drums throughout the evening.  It was also cool to see the lighting spectacle from afar as the lighting changes were plentiful and at times frantic as they complimented the music.  Many of the lights came from behind the band and were cast out into the crowd which at times blinded and confused you.  If you easily get headaches or are prone to seizures, this is not the show for you.  At one point the lighting was so chaotic that I thought there should be some sort of warning for people like they do at amusement parks for expectant mothers and people with heart conditions. 

The band came out for an encore and they started playing the final track off their second major album which is my favorite of theirs.  They did not play it at Bonnaroo when I first saw them much to my disappointment then.  No song better encapsulates both the soft melodic beauty as well as the all out emphatic and raucous crescendo they are capable of.  It does an amazing job of building and keeps you hanging on each part for a number of minutes before it kicks into the next level.  At nearly 12 minutes in the album form and 14 in the live form it’s one of their longer tracks and there are several times when you think they’re going to kick it in to the next part, but they don’t.  They just hang there a little longer blowing you away with their ferocity and refusal to let you go.  The lights flash all over the place and end up confusing the bejesus out of you.  When they finally do come to the finale of the song you wonder how they got there from someplace so much different than where you ended up.  To see them perform it live is nothing less than mesmerizing.  When it finished, Taylor turned to me and said she was sweating just from listening.  I knew exactly how she felt.  If you have 15 minutes to kill, this is as good as it gets to seeing it live.

With that, the band and their fellow musicians left the stage to a standing ovation.  They came back out for a final curtain call which was pretty cool to see.  Though I’d still call them a relatively unknown band, it was great to see them play a larger venue like this to a near sold out crowd.  They seemed like they really appreciated everyone being there just as much as we appreciated them coming to our area. 

Taylor and Clark had pretty much the same reactions I did and I was happy to share this experience with them.  This is probably the last concert they will ever go to before parenthood hits them.  Taylor made the comment that several times throughout the show, she could feel her soon-to-be daughter kicking and reacting to the sounds that consumed the arena.  I’ve heard that your taste in music in some part is formed while you are in your mother’s womb taking in the sounds that are around you and her.  I hope that’s the case for Taylor and Clark’s daughter because if a performance like this ends up being one of her barometers and baselines for all other music to come, she is going to be one hip chick.  I like to think I have really good taste in music and if my barometer is Jackson Browne which eventually led me to a band like Sigur Ros, just imagine where Sigur Ros will lead her.  Clearly, the sky is the limit.